Every year in the United States alone, more than 17,000 people suffer a spinal cord injury, according to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center1. This means that up to 350,000 people are currently living in the country with some sort of spinal cord injury that affects the way they live.
These numbers only show a broad view of the hundreds of thousands of people with an injury to the spine. To each and every one of those individuals, the injuries can be devastating.
Injuries to the spinal cord are often untreatable. Victims are left with permanent, lifelong disabilities that can affect every aspect of their life, from walking and talking to controlling their bladder and maintaining blood pressure.
Because the injuries are irreparable, the financial burden on victims and their families can be catastrophic. But, if the injury was caused by someone else’s negligence or reckless behavior, a victim may be able to file a lawsuit to hold the individual or organization accountable and receive compensation.
Find out more about spinal cord injuries and how a lawyer can help.
The central nervous system is responsible for all the thought processes, movement, and feeling throughout the body. It consists of two parts: the brain and the spinal cord.
If the brain is considered the center of our thoughts and the interpreter of the external world, the spinal cord is the highway that communicates those thoughts and actions between the brain and the body, according to the Christopher Reeve Foundation2.
The spinal cord itself is a bundle of 31 pairs of nerve fibers enclosed within the spine. The cord extends from the brainstem down toward the tailbone. The spinal cord properly ends near the lower lumbar region of the spine.
Three layers of tissue or membranes surround the spinal cord within the canal of the spine to protect it from damage. A colorless liquid called cerebrospinal fluid also fills the canal of the spinal cord to act as a cushion in the event of a jolt or sudden movement.
The spinal cord is divided into five segments. Each area serves a specific function for the rest of the body. Here is a quick breakdown.
The cervical portion of the spinal cord is in the neck and consists of eight pairs of spinal nerves that descend from C1 to C8. The nerves in this region are responsible for several important functions, including breathing and controlling all movements of the head and upper body.
The thoracic region is the longest of the spinal cord with 12 pairs of spinal nerves from T1 to T12. Located in the chest and abdomen, thoracic nerves help coordinate movement in the lower part of the body, such as abdomen and groin.
The five lumbar nerves range from L1 to L5 and also deal with the movement of the lower part of the body, including the knees, feet, hips, and quadriceps.
The sacral section of the spinal cord also has five nerves — S1 to S5. The nerves help coordinate movement in the lower part of the body, such as flexing the foot and hip. It also affects the bladder and genital organs.
The final section only has a single pair of spinal nerves and is referred to as Co1 or Coc. It is part of the tailbone.
A spinal cord injury is an injury to the spinal cord that causes temporary or permanent alterations to the motor, sensory, or autonomic functions of the spinal cord, according to the United Spinal Association3. The result of a spinal cord injury is often permanent and life-altering damage to the body and neurological functions.
Determining the true ramifications of a spinal cord injury depends on the location and severity of the injury.
The average age at the time of injury has increased from 29 years old in the 1970s to 43 years old in 2018. Roughly 78 percent of all new spinal cord injuries happen to males.
Car crashes are the leading cause of injury to the spinal cord, accounting for about 38.3 percent of all spinal cord injuries. Falls are a close second at 31.6 percent.
Other common causes of spinal cord injuries include:
Spinal cord injuries are generally divided into two categories: complete and incomplete.
A complete spinal cord injury results in permanent damage to the spinal cord and a loss of function below the level of injury. A complete injury can happen at any level of the spinal cord. It can be particularly devastating because it often results in a greater loss of function than an incomplete injury in the same spot.
Instead of losing complete function below the level of injury, an incomplete injury results in partial function below the damaged area. For example, this could mean that a person may be able to move one leg more or experience more sensations on one side of the body.
Incomplete spinal cord injuries are sometimes further broken down into different patterns. These three are among the most notable, according to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons4.
The front of the spinal cord is damaged, resulting in the loss of movement and more detailed sensations.
Damage to the large nerve fibers that results in paralysis, sensory loss below the site of the injury, and occasionally the loss of bladder control.
When one side of the spinal cord is injured, a person may experience movement and sensation loss below the level of injury. Pain and temperature sensations are also lost on the side of the body opposite the injury.
Symptoms are classified in three ways:
Quadriplegia - the loss of movement and sensation in all arms and legs
Paraplegia - the loss of movement and sensation in both legs
Triplegia - the loss of movement and sensation in one arm and both legs
According to Johns Hopkins Medicine5, other symptoms may include:
The consequences of injuries to the spinal cord can be immediate and last for the rest of someone’s life. Spinal cord injuries often result in a lifetime of pain, treatment, and around-the-clock care.
But, depending on the cause of the injury, a victim or their family may be able to file a lawsuit. In some cases, the injury may have been caused by negligence. This is when someone fails to take reasonable care to avoid injury.
For example, if a person suffered a spinal cord injury after being in a car accident when the other person ran a red light while drunk driving, the victim will be able to sue for negligence.
In other cases, a defective product may be the culprit. Companies have an obligation to meet the ordinary expectations of the user by keeping them out of danger. For example, if a person was injured by a defective airbag that was inadequately tested, they may be able to file a lawsuit.
Injuries not only take a toll on the victim but also on the family members who sometimes have to help pay for costly care. The costs associated with spinal cord injuries can be catastrophic and unsustainable.
A high quadriplegic injury at 25 years old will require an estimated lifetime cost of about $4.9 million1. Even motor function loss at any level at the age of 50 requires more than $1.1 million. This estimate does not account for the losses in wages, fringe benefits, or productivity over that time.
If the injury was caused by the negligence or recklessness of another person, an experienced attorney will be able to help the victim recover lost wages, pay for all past and future medical expenses, and receive noneconomic damages, such as pain and suffering.
Filing a lawsuit can also help hold the responsible parties accountable for their actions and give the victim and their family a new lease on life.
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